Sikkim- a memoir (Chapter 1)

Sikkim- a memoir (Chapter 1)

I am taking one of the last taxis to M.G. Marg, it shall be one of the last evenings strolls to the busiest landmark of this hill station. As the sun and the clouds are pushing one another for a space in the heaven I sit quietly and sigh while the breeze gently touches me reminding me that all good things shall pass as well.

On our way to NJP railway station on the train, Megha asked me with both excitement and a look of nervousness, “Are we going to be alright?” I just smiled at her with a nod of assurance. We had never been to Gangtok before, and when she got an opportunity to work there we knew that it was a new lease of life for us. I often hear people saying that hills are only good enough for a vacation. For me, perhaps I can never express it in words how I feel in the hills.

Sikkim has got a pleasant weather all throughout the year, but towards the end of October it starts to get chillier and that’s when one knows the winter is quietly knocking at the door. I can’t get enough of winter ever, winter makes me alive, and the gloom of this season is only when I feel everything is alright. And that’s when we arrived in this panoramic hill station, and the best thing was not to stay here as a tourist but to by being as one of them for many months to come.

Searching for a nest

For the initial five days, we stayed in NHPC guest house. As I was still recovering from a slipped disc I was taking it slowly. Working on my laptop during the day and giving some interview tips to the son of the cook who was preparing for the staff selection services. His father came to me with the request to guide his son when he heard us conversing in English, this language can be really funny on how it brings strangers together.

Be it a metropolitan or a hill station searching for a rented house is always going to be a difficult task. Megha’s colleague had a space to rent out, and we were quite relieved to know about this. So we went to check the place. We were not impressed. As much as I remember the room had a dark and cold feel to it with a typical north Indian appeal, and although the rooms were freshly painted and were big enough it still reminded me of the rented two room apartment in Indra Vihar in Delhi, and that annoying ‘Jai Mata Di’ tune of the calling bell.

Bheem uncle who happens to be the uncle of Megha’s elder brother’s friend and who works as a senior inspector with Sikkim police helped us in getting some information for the accommodation. When he came to know about a two room house to be let in Tadong he took us there. The place was sandwiched between other houses and the area felt more like a chawl. We went inside the so-called two room accommodation only to find that it was just one big hall like room separated by wooden partition panels. It was a dark and filthy room reflecting the underbelly of this beautiful state. Then my glances straightly fixed at the remnants of the Dettol soap kept near the bathroom. It was looking filthy.

Perhaps the person misunderstood with what kind of house we were looking for. We were gradually becoming anxious on these unexpected results with our searches. Bheem uncle then informed us that he has got a single room in his house which the tenant vacated a few days back but he was reluctant to give as he thought it would be too humble for us. However, we requested that if we could shift to that room until we are able to find a place. It was our bad luck that his other corner of the house which was a two room apartment was rented out just before we arrived in Sikkim.

 

But bad luck can’t sustain for so long, and we just have to be persistent. Bheem uncle decided to take us to his home so that we can check it out before taking any decision. His house was situated in Rajgram which is down below Entel Maruti showroom, but one has to climb down some 150 odd concrete steps to reach the place. As our luck would have it we met a lady in her mid 50’s (Padma aunty) in Rajgram whose house was located some 60 steps above Bheem uncles house. She mentioned that their tenant just vacated and its ready to be occupied. When we came to know of it we decided to check the place immediately, and yes we loved the place at the first glance. That’s how we found our first nest together of starting to live-in together.

 

For the next 11 months, Padma aunty and Athop uncle were our landlords. I have stayed in several rented accommodations but this one was different. We never felt as tenants here but a part of their extended family. They even took us in their car and showed us around Gangtok. I was touched by their gesture of offering prayers in the Enchey monastery for us. But the best part was when they treated us in a very hip restaurant called The Square for lunch,

 

 

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The loveliest couple Athop uncle and Padma aunty!

 

The winter was here and I could feel the days getting already shorter. The locality was anyway very quiet but after the dusk, there was an eerie melancholic silence which was very uncomfortable to the senses as we were only used to the chaos of the cities. But we soon got used to it.

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View from Entel

 

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Monastery near the King’s palace

 

Footsteps!

In the initial days though we had trouble getting a sound sleep as we would wake up in the middle of the night only to hear some fading sounds of the footsteps supposedly coming from the stairs outside. We thought since the narrow passage of concrete steps passing right beside the balcony connects to the nearby hills and they would be one of those drunk lads who lost their way back home. However, we felt that the footsteps are subtle and it was more like a small kid trying to run through the steps. Probably it was our mind that was forming the mental images, but how it started roughly at around 3 am almost daily was confusing. The chilly winter nights anyway adds a scary glamour to the subject in question. After few uncomfortable nights, we decided to change our sleeping positions. As strange it gets, Interestingly that worked for us as after changing the position of the bed we never heard the noise again.

Then almost after a month, we were abruptly awakened at the same time from a different noise. We were not able to comprehend the sound but it seemed like it was the sound of a flute like an object but with a screech. It was too sharp for the ears and pierced through the night. Without any doubt, we were terrified, horrified and what not because I have never heard anything like that before in my entire life let alone hearing someone playing the flute like object during the devil’s hour.

Later in the morning we got to know from our landlord that a group of people called ‘ban jhakri’ visit each and every vicinity of Sikkim couple of times in a month and their job is to cast off the evil spirits that may be residing in the nooks and corners of the hills and gorges where human habitat is present. Nonetheless, it’s really scary to wake up to the sound of someone playing an instrument knowing what it is meant for.

The heart of Gangtok is its people and even though I am a stranger I never felt out of place here. Perhaps it might also be because I look like one of them. As a matter of fact, people always initiate a conversation in Nepali with me, when I politely tell them that I don’t speak the language they get confused whether I am not a local.

On weekends the M.G Marg is significantly congested with tourists and locals alike. But it’s quite different from the other crowded places of India as it’s not chaotic or noisy. Although exceptions are there in the form of those typical tourists who flock from the nearby states.

In M.G. Marg my favorite two things to do is to hog and to sit on the bench with Megha to admire the smartly dressed and beautiful people walking by. For the first one, The taste of Tibet serves really nice momos, and they have various stuffings ranging from chicken to beef, besides momo I love their thukpa (I am salivating as I write this). M.G. Marg has only Khan uncle‘s which serve good tandoori dishes.

However, I like Thakali for their authentic Nepali thali and a good range of cocktail drinks but it still can’t beat the Newari thali we had in Singsor bridge. There is a snack corner which serves healthy smoothies with waffles. Coffee shop serves good pizza (it’s big!!) and spaghetti, they keep beers too! Densberg and Hit which is brewed in Sikkim and the former is owned by Danny Denzongpa and it tastes really great. Although I like Densberg better if you are with friends with some couple of mugs to gulp down, it really sets the tone of the conversation. Hit is another brand of beer gets to your head really fast and it can really give you a bad hangover. Mu kimchi is a Korean restaurant that serves delicious kimbap, bibimbap and other delicacies. Once you go there you can’t help but visit this place on numerous other occasions. I found the aesthetics and taste of the cuisines quite similar to the tribal community. I forgot to mention their mouth watering sushi!

 

Towards Tibet road which is adjacent to the M.G.Marg Cafe Live and Loud is located. After many months, we finally thought of giving this place a try and it became one of our favorite places in Gangtok. I remember how dead drunk I was after sloshing down several drinks in our first visit. We never visited Thungdel though but of course, there is always the next time and I would visit when I am there again.

But Sikkim is not about restaurants and cafes but it’s people. It’s about the innocence and honesty that is ingrained and imbibed in the culture here. In the next blog travel with me in Maruti 800 to the nooks and corners of Sikkim when one of my favorite people come all the way to Gangtok in his legendary car. And also how our stay in Gangtok became all the more exciting with Sudarshana joining us in Gangtok all the way from Delhi.

Excerpts from the next chapter of Sikkim memoir…

Our stay in Gangtok was more special as it gave us an opportunity to host our friends and family. Himadri, was the first one to give this opportunity to us, and he came all the way from Guwahati in his Maruti 800 (a small family car from yesteryear) and it was in his small but very sturdy car that we mapped almost all the parts of Sikkim. The irony is that when you are living that mesmerizing moment you don’t even realize it that the moment is passing by and what is left is a just distant dream of memories.

So we packed our bags, took out some cash, and got some food supplies and we three headed towards the interiors of Sikkim. Our first stoppage was Jorethang, it easily became one of my least favorite places in Sikkim as it’s a valley of a commercial hub with its developing congested buildings. Nonetheless, all the districts of Sikkim have a similar look in the form of its nicely paved pedestrians way and wide alleys for the people to take a stroll. But it was very humid there and I didn’t see much people from the hills living there but mostly the people migrated from neighboring states in search of a livelihood. (…to be contd)

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Judima Festival-2nd

Judima Festival-2nd

The number of times I have traveled to Haflong last year would be more than thrice the number of times I have visited the place before till now. And the reason behind the frequent travels was the second edition of Judima festival.

Interestingly, I went to Haflong to attend the maiden edition of Judima festival as a tourist and an outsider. And when the team behind the fest decided to go for the second edition, I got an opportunity to be a part of the organizing team.

Unlike the two days of first edition of Judima festival which was held in the month of January last year, the second edition of Judima fest was a three day long affair which ensured more coverage, more activities and music, and much larger crowd than what I witnessed in the first edition. And even in the midst of nonchalant protests by a meager section of people to ban the fest, the festival pulled a large number of crowd from both local and tourists alike.

The Chief Minister of the state was to inaugurate the fest but he couldn’t make it due to some last minute exigency. However, a few ministers from his cabinet graced the inaugural event of the festival.

Nonetheless, our cities and for that matter any part of the country even being the remotest of the regions can get a face-lift if an important leader makes their visit. And Haflong being the only hill station of Assam got its fair share of makeover too.

I just wonder how it would have been if the CM’s cancellation of visit would have been announced even few days prior, say at least three days in advance- no need to guess, the roads and beautification would have been left incomplete in the middle.

However, in spite of the absence of the CM, the fest started off well. A few ministers from his cabinet graced the inaugural function.

The first two days of the fest was really warmer than what normally the temperature would have been around this time of the year. The fest started with Dr Ronald Bathari’s singing of “We welcome you to Dima Hasao”, this welcome number from him was raw and refreshing at the same time, I guess that’s where the uniqueness of the place lies too.

They even have an interesting and very nicely made YouTube channel, click the link below:

Judima fest prep with Dr Ronald (The guy behind in purple sweat shirt is Dr Ronald)

Conventionally any given day the fest in this part of the world starts with a welcome speech, the speech by the guests and a customary vote of thanks. But what got my attention as always was the prayer offered to Barai-Sibarai (Goddess Shiva) by the elderly village head to mark the beginning of the festival. However, I felt the prayer recitation was not flawless unlike last time.

The showcase of ethnic cultural dance and music was initiated by 100 plus Dimasa drummers and dancers assembled together. It is indeed a sight to witness this synchrony  live, and perhaps I now understand better why your feet starts to tap and your arms want to sway the moment you listen to Khram-Muri (Dimasa drum and flute).

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Bai-dima being performed by more than 100 dancers and drummers: Pic credit (Pappa Raozza Karigabxa)

There was a Judima tasting experience for the tourists, however, at the same time the second edition also ensured that no wine was being sold to any minors. It is a symbolic step as Judi in Dimasa community is intrinsic to the everyday use in offerings in rituals or offered to the guests at home as a gesture of respect.

Dancers and singers from various other tribes and communities added more charm and shades of various colors with their performance. The surrounding hillocks echoed their rhythm.

 

(Photo credits: Dr Chandan Sharma & Mr Bankim Phonglo)

Although the day was very sunny, the pleasant winter evenings compensated for all the complaints, and made the ambience ready for some scintillating time ahead. From Daniel Langthasa’s (Digital suicide’s front-man) satirical take on the current socio-political guitar solo to Koloma’s folk fusion kept everyone wanting for more. While the former presented some intelligent slapstick through his music and the latter performed some refreshing Thripra songs to listen to (it is their second performance in the fest).

Another fusion rock band from Guwahati by the name ,Celestial Way, performed Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ and indeed made the crowd go wild with the energy to warm up the night. And when it was time for the show stopper rock band from Dimapur- Dima Project to perform, I was waiting for them to play my favorite number ‘Lailangkha’. They reminded me of the rock bands from the 90’s. The last day of the event saw completely two opposite genres performing, one was Rain in Sahara- a hip-hop fusion band and the other was the veteran of Blues- Spreading Roots. And only one thing was common between them- their electrifying performance!

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Spreading Roots in action: Pic credits- Pappa Raozza Karigabxa)

The festival was thronged by lads and damsels with their enchanting spirit and beauty, and it was an ocean of rainbow all the way. Spellbound!

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Dimasa damsels: Pic credit- Dr Chandan Sharma

The other attractions of Judima were the trekking events and heritage walk to the abandoned railway track (another unique tourist attraction which is yet to be utilized to the fullest by the tourism dept of DIMA HASAO).

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Heritage trek to abandon railway track: Pic credit- Pappa Raozza Karigabxa

Apart from the above itineraries, there were fun and thrill filled sport activities for young and old alike, like boating, zip-lining, burma-bridge, and wall climbing which was well supported Assam mountaineering association and Climbing circle group.

For trekking enthusiasts both the treks to Barail hill range, and Trek to the picturesque Samparadisa was successfully organized. It not only gave the nature loving tourists a taste of varied flora and fauna of the region but also introduced them to the typical Dimasa village and a peek into their daily lives.

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Trek to Samparidisa village: pic credit- Colours of northeast India

Interestingly there was a section of people who were against the celebration of Judima festival as according to them this celebration is parallel to promoting consumption of liquor amongst the youths. And as I write this piece these handful of people are still wondering how to handle the progressive and inclusive nature of  the present generation who are already tired of the hypocrisy and double faced political leaders.

Fortunately, their negative publicity could not deter the much awaited second edition of Judima fest which was celebrated in the right spirit without any untoward incident eventhough this place is known for its political and social disturbance in the past.

My mother urges me to work for the development of this community which has a foundation of rich culture, and I too empathize with her. Only thing that concerns me is the lacklustre attitude of the so called leaders who are busy reaping the public fund and ill informed people who are yet to understand the inclusive all round development of the region and the community.

With the belief that I will be able to contribute more to this lovely initiative taken by the Judima fest team and the beautiful people of Haflong, I am positive that things will change and Haflong will be visited more by the rest of the world.

Juthai!

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Enthralled crowd at Judima festival- Pic credit: Pappa Raozza Karigabxa

Note: All the pictures are the property of the photographers, the featured image is also being clicked by Pappa Raozza Karigabxa

 

As a ‘Jajabor’ in Himachal (Chapter-III)

As a ‘Jajabor’ in Himachal (Chapter-III)

The streets were getting lonelier, and few of the shop’s were already shut.Some travellers had just arrived here like me, but they seemed to know where they were going as their stay for the night I thought was sorted. But I was yet to search a shelter for the night, and my tummy was screaming to be fed. I was too exhausted and thought before searching for a room I ought to have something else I would die of starvation. There were several cafes, restaurants and German bakeries in the area, but you call it intuition or gut feeling I thought of climbing few stairs and check in to Richik’s cafe. Richie is the owner of the cafe and hence the name.

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Ever welcoming!

The cafe is divided into two parts, the first one is the typical sitting area where you can grab your meal and chill there, although I like the other half of the cafe. There are mattresses and cushions with comfortable blankets in case you doze off. He greeted me with enthusiasm, and after exchanging greetings he made me comfortable in the other corner of the cafe. I just realized then it was really freezing outside and I was in my floaters and wearing a sweat shirt accompanied by a trek pant. As my concentration was on searching for a place and fill my tummy I didn’t realize it till then. I asked for mushroom soup and a penne pasta in white sauce. I was a hungry animal ready to devour anything that was thrown at me but I clung to remain human and rather order something which can be quickly prepared and served to the table. I asked Richie if he could help in arranging a room for a day or two. He said, “No Problem Sir, there are several lodges and motels available, I will send Kamal to ask on your behalf. Kamal is a young man, may be around 20 years of age and is an employee of the cafe. “I don’t want to spend much, 500 for a day at max.” “Don’t worry” he said. I quickly put my focus back on the meal which was served steaming hot, the pleasure of food can only be felt when you are starving. By the time I finished my respective dishes Kamal came back with an arrangement of a room in the nearby lodge named Yik and Yak, he said, “Sir, the room has been arranged at 500 bucks a day plus it has a television, a balcony and a geyser too”.  I thanked Richie, tipped Kamal, paid the bill and left for the lodge. Kamal helped me to locate the place, the room was big enough for two individuals, it had no doubt a big television and other facilities stated. Apart from all the amenities mentioned the television didn’t run, not that I plan to watch it but some times when you are all alone by yourself  this idiot box can act as a cushion, that can be true for someone who is an urban dweller. Other than that the carpet laid on the floor was unkempt and and covered with dust. I am not sure but I think I have an OCD to take shower if I am sweaty and sticky but did not had to chance to take one. It doesn’t matter the temperature outside is in minus and your geyser is not working or functioning at below par when all you want is the million droplets of water to calm you down. I had a tiring journey after all.

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At Richie’s cafe!

When I woke up the next morning it was raining. The rain had made the temperature drop by another one degree Celsius. Due to rain the snow-covered mountains in the distance was lost amidst fog. It was freezing, with nowhere to go for the moment I thought of spending couple of hours at Richik’s cafe. He welcomed me with enthusiasm again, I learned the cafe was only seven days old but looked quite promising. He played tracks from yesteryear consisting of Uriah Heep, John Bon Jovi, White Snake etc. I recalled my days with Pink Cherry Bubble, I sighed. After stuffing myself with potatoes tossed in red sauce with shredded chicken, egg poach, club sandwich and two cups of coffee I retired to the other corner of the cafe and utilized my time in writing journals. It was freezing, and Richie was kind enough to lend me his gloves and also sent Kamal to buy woolen socks for me. He even gave me a piece of paper where he jotted all the nearby places where I can either trek or take a cab. I even thought of renting a bullet but it was coming too expensive. Sensing disappointment in me Kamal offered his new Pulsar and insisted that I can keep it as long as I was in Manali. Soon the rain came to a halt, I thought of taking an auto-rickshaw to a nearby hill called Vasisth. Vasisth is a temple dedicated to Hindu God Rama, and named after sage Vasisht, this place is famous for hot spring waters. People visit this holy shrine to take bath in the ‘holy’ spring waters which is believed to cure various physical ailments. The autowala said, “It would be 150 rupees to Vasisth”, “I want you to take me back here too”. “It would be 300 rupees then”, he said. We agreed and the auto took me to Vasisth. Too many people, crowded, and flocks of regular tourists in every corner. The driver suggested me to take bath in the shrine too but I already made up my mind not to.Temples as tourist destinations has never been my suo moto and too many people discourage me from visiting them. I guess in a country like India when a family witness a guy alone and all by himself they consider him a prey to click pictures for them. “One with the temple door please” the husband with a heavy south Indian accent instructed me. While I was taking few snaps of the intricate designs of the temple entrance the newly married couple caught hold of me and ‘requested’ me to take pictures for them. I clicked half a dozen pictures for them until they were satisfied. Vasisth temple is believed to be more than 4000 years old, sounds older than ancient.

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Vasisth temple.

For some unknown reason I was in hurry that day and I could not properly explore the place as I could have. The auto driver suggested that I can visit Jogini waterfall if I want to and he would wait for me till I come back. I found Manali to be traveler friendly and very comforting. I took his suggestion and started trekking towards the waterfall. The view from the narrow lanes of the snow-capped mountains is enchanting, it is needless to say but I can never get tired of the view, it gives me so much of peace that I can die gazing at them.

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Way to Jogini waterfall.

As funny it can get I never reached Jogini waterfall, I realized that later when I was checking the pictures of the place in the internet. I somehow doubted it when the auto driver asked me, “Did you even go to the waterfall, how come you returned so early?” I said, “I did not spend much time there”, looking perplexed he didn’t ask anything much. So what happened was I did reach a waterfall and another trekker probably from Britain must have thought the same as we sat near the waterfall for some time. I did not see any path ahead so I clicked few pictures and returned. Later, I picked a swarovski for Megha from a nearby crystal and precious stone shop. That was it, I returned to old Manali, had my lunch in one of the German cafe, and went straight to Richie’s cafe, by that time the sky was all clear and blue.

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Indulgence!

“Richie, would you tell me little bit about Malana, all the rumors that I’ve heard is it true?” He replied, “Yes sir, Malana village is a solitary valley, they consider themselves to be the descendants of Alexander”, “I’ve heard that they don’t follow Indian law and they have their own set of rules and procedures”, he replied, “They actually consider themselves superior to the rest of the people and fellow citizens, they don’t appreciate someone talking to them directly or touching them, or entering their household.” Malana of course is known for its hash, the premium cream it produces, its not a secret anymore. Richie also tells me that there are drug portals very much active in the valley and they supply the hash internationally. I have never smoked a joint properly in my life and my desire to taste the premium hash became stronger after such thrilling intro to the mysterious valley. Sometimes what you wish for comes alive in such a manner that you feel the old man from up above was just eaves dropping you.

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View from Vasisth.

I could never visit Malana though, next day in the morning in spite of so many places to visit in Manali I immediately decide to leave for Dharamshala. I heard a lot about the place but knew that its a commercial place. However, I felt I should be heading towards it anyway as I was sure I would be meeting new people and experience something new. I bid my farewell to old Manali, the same autowala took me to the bus station, I bought four snickers and got inside the bus. This time I made sure the bus was going directly to my destination. When I inquired, the bus-conductor told me that the bus will reach Dharamshala at seven in the evening. I glanced at the my watch, it was nine in the morning, I sighed. It turned out later that I was the first one to board the bus and also the last one to get down. The bus again took me through the zig-zag, across the valleys and hills, people getting up and getting down at different stands. It was 12:30 in the afternoon when the bus entered Mandi bus station, the conductor asked me, “Where would you have your lunch, in Mandi or Joginder Nagar?” As if I have a fair idea of the places, I replied promptly, “Joginder Nagar”. “Good, we will have our lunch there too, we will inform you, we can have our food together.” Later, I realized the distance between the former and the latter was 72 km, and my tummy rang several bells before I could fill it.

When the bus made its halt in Mandi for fifteen minutes, I saw a guy who was not from India but at the same time did not appear to be from typical west got inside the bus. He was traveling alone and seemed to be backpacking like me. He had a curly hair which was giving his look a Seurat’s painting kind of appearance. I count on my intuition and they were telling me, “You need to strike a conversation with his guy”. The conversation did happen and I initiated but not before we reached Palampur. Soon, i came to know he was carrying the hash from Malana. In the next three days we would not only be smoking joint together but would also sharing thoughts on philosophy, culture, teaching languages to each other and laughing out loud. Salom to David (Dudu) Elbaz. Contd…

As a ‘Jajabor’ in Himachal (Chapter-II)

As a ‘Jajabor’ in Himachal (Chapter-II)

The bus was small, and since it was morning it didn’t had many passengers either. But the vehicle was going at a speed  which I thought was not appropriate, it was going too fast, speeding at the sharp turns where it should have slowed down a bit. I hold on to my guts and had to put my faith on the driver. We reached Ghatasni by 8:00 am in the morning, quite a speed. The bus stops at a market place after half an hour, and the people in the bus rush towards the bus stalled in front. Confused, I asked the driver, “was it not a direct bus?” “Yes, go to that bus” he said. I did what he told me to. I see the bus and the driver have changed, the conductor remains the same. I don’t know but it is for some reason funny for me. The plan was to reach Mandi by 9:30 am where Megha and six of her friends would be joining from Delhi, and another four from Dehradun. At first, I was unsure about joining them as crowd always suffocates me, then I thought, why not? Its alright to be with friends, anyway at times its good to know people during a trip.

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The three-storied pagoda.

It was 9:45 when I reached Mandi, Megha and friends were yet to reach but they forwarded me the number of Mr Biswajit. Mr Biswajit, his wife Monalisha, and their friends Bhaskar and Suru came from Dehradun to join us, they were already waiting there for the group in Mandi. The duo call themselves ‘Monajeet’, I am talking about Mr and Mrs Biswajit, they seem to have traveled across Himachal and trekked through various hills and mountains. We instantly stroke some common chords. Soon, Megha and her friends joined us. They all looked sleepy and hungry after the overnight journey from Delhi. Everyone agreed on heading straight to Prashar lake. Prashar lake is located 50 kms north of Mandi, and the drive from Mandi would take almost two and half hours to reach there. I already saw some majestic pictures of the lake when it snows here. There’s no snow at this time of the year (during April), but no doubt the place and the view itself will enchant me. Situated at a height of 8960 ft above sea level, the three storied Pagoda like temple is dedicated to the sage Prashar (Wikipedia). The drive till Prashar itself is mesmerizing, the valleys and hills again greet me. Pragyan and others were following us in the other car. Pragyan is one of the many special friends Megha is blessed with, when I last saw this guy in a busy street of Fancy bazaar in Guwahati he was picking something for his sister. That was some six years back, now he is all grown up into a man. He keeps things to himself and doesn’t talk much but I like his company, after all an introvert can open up before his own kind. We stopped somewhere in the middle to fill ourselves with something, and what else better than a bowl of Maggi noodles with half-fried egg (poach). We all had more than a bowl of Maggi and I’ve lost the count of egg poach we had. Basically we filled ourselves like greedy hogs and soon ready to charge the lake. From here it was another 20 minutes of drive to Prashar lake. It was late afternoon when we reached Prashar, everyone looked a bit tired and took their own time to freshen up and get ready. Well getting ready to nothing, we were still confused whether to stay in our tents, or book couple of rooms in the nearby guesthouse but we were running short of a tent to provide shelter for 13 people.

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Inside the temple premises. (photo credits: Pragyan)

The lake is surrounded by hillocks and the moment we reached near the lake I leave all my belongings to climb one with Pragyan and Bipin (friend from Himachal). The climb to the hillock looked easy, but when I reached the midway of it I could feel my chest was pumping out blood to every inch of my body, I could no longer breath and felt as if my heart is going to pop out from my mouth. Took some breather, caught my breath again, and finally reached the top of the hillock. I could hear the wind, see the whole Dholadhar mountain range and the lake, the three storied Pagoda looked so ancient, the place itself must be thousand years old. Someone told us that once a researcher from U.S. came here to study the lake and measure its depth. She came prepared with all her equipment’s and gadgets but eventually had to leave without any success. One can feel the intense energy surrounding the lake provided you have the ears to listen to it. The priest of the temple shared a story with Pragyan where his great grandfather once dived into the lake and discovered a cave beneath the lake, he went on to meditate there for a week, I would like to believe in that fairy tale.

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A difficult climb!

Soon the sun sets and we fix our tents, since there is very less vegetation its difficult to get firewood, so we could not start any bonfire, and therefore no merry making. I was alright with that as my eyes were fixed on the starry sky, the star seems to take over the sky when its pitch dark and there’s no moon to be seen.  My elders are right when they say never to compare the beauty of the nature between the day and that of the night, what might seem to enthrall you during the sunlight might appear creepy and scarily mysterious in the absence of the light. The whole place went quite, only the occasional giggle and vague sounds coming from the trekkers who were camping in some distance. As the night progressed I could hear some noise from the temple, it happened to be the ‘bhajan’ which would continue throughout the night. I was quietly lying down in my tent and listening to this magical noise coming from the pagoda. Megha fell asleep early as the terrains were too tiring for her. I couldn’t sleep that well that night for two reasons, I didn’t want the moment to slip by in the hills in my sleep, secondly, I felt as if someone was standing near the tent, and I had to stay alert. The night was freezing, and only thing that saved us from it was the tent and the blankets which we rented from the temple sources, you can borrow it for a cheap 20 bucks for the night.

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Everyone was still sleeping in their tent when I woke up. I was too sluggish to do the morning chores so I sat down on the rock nearby gazing towards the temple. As some moments pass by I see flock of people in the open pavement near the temple. Gradually I see some people with a fully grown Himalayan goat moving inside the temple entrance, they together repeat some mantra after the priest, I could only hear the echo of it. I was just waiting to witness the obvious. After some time they took the animal to one corner of a nearby hillock, with a blow its head was chopped off, I sighed. The spell broke loose when Pragyan greeted me, he brought me prasad from the temple, the prasad was suji (semolina) made with ghee and it tasted delicious, he told me that he was there witnessing the whole affair. People started to wake up from their slumber and we begin to fold our tents. Before we leave, I took a parikrama of the lake with Pragyan. I could feel the soil near the lake is pretty spongy, I could just imagine how it would be to take a dive beneath the surface of the lake and reach the lake-bed. I quickly freshen up and changed my undergarments into fresh ones. People would depart and leave for their respective destinations, some would leave for Dehradun, some for Noida and Delhi, and I just decided to leave for Manali after reaching Mandi. Mr Biswajit suggested me to stay in old Manali as it shall interest me with less crowd and various cafes. After spending there for a day or two I could decide my next destination. I nodded to myself.

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When the sun sets in Prashar Valley!

After reaching Mandi I quickly departed for Manali. Ideally where it should have taken some odd three hours to reach Manali from Mandi, it took almost  five and half hours to reach the place. Being the conductor of Himachal State Transport he should have been more responsible in telling that the bus is going to Kullu and not to Manali, rather he tells me that I can get another bus from Kullu and would take responsibility to get me one. I said, “OK”. It was not a bad decision though, I was anyway not in any hurry. I thought in a way I could also get a feel of Kullu.The road from Mandi to Manali can be tricky for drivers who are new to the valley, with sharp turns things can go pretty rough if you are not alert enough. We pass by Pondoh dam which looks serene and quiet for the moment. There’s also a tunnel which is around 2.8 km in length on the way. I love tunnels, last time I remember the excitement while crossing the tunnel near Maibang with a Royal Enfield. I was trying to look through the window the size and the feel of the tunnel, it was cold and huge. It took some minutes before we could see the light of the day. The bus finally reached Kullu, the conductor helped me to locate the bus which would take me to Manali. I made myself comfortable and when the conductor of this bus said, “Sir, this bus can only drop you till Manali road, you will get another bus from there which would drop you till Manali”, I could have got down then, then I thought it would be fun to see at what time I reach Manali.I finally board the bus which would finally drop me to Manali, we passed by many restaurants and food joints, I was a lot hungrier to see them. I also pass by many rafting points beside the river Bias. I would like to try rafting next time I visit Himachal again. The bus finally comes to its final halt in Manali. The place seemed to be crowded with various shops of different interests, people who appeared to be tourists from different states and people from different nationalities were flocking everywhere. I got down from the bus, it was almost 8 in the evening, I knew where I should be heading to, I ask the autowala, “Old Manali?” “90 bucks” he said. We bargained at 70. Within 10 minutes I was in old Manali. I got down near a Tattoo parlor after crossing the bridge. With no arrangements of stay for the night I started to search for a room, but first I need to kill my hunger. Then there in the distance some few meters away I saw Richiek’s cafe. Contd…

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In the picture (from left): Suru, Mrs Monalisha, Chayani, Kimi, Megha, Bhaskar, Nikhil, Pragyan, Rajiv, Bipin, Kunal, Farhad. (Photo credits: Mr Biswajit Bharali)

As a ‘Jajabor’ in Himachal-(Chapter-I)

As a ‘Jajabor’ in Himachal-(Chapter-I)

Finally I could settle down after reaching home and ready with my travel story. I have browsed through the pictures several times which I took during the journey. And I thought writing this piece of travelogue would be easy but now I am in lost of words and even thoughts as to how to begin. I would like the readers to visit and relive each place and moment through the expression here, and I would keep it simple.

Of late I couldn’t like my job anymore, and I don’t like to cling with that feeling for too long. I would like to do things that I love and would love to earn a living with the things that I love to do. No matter how much unstable I am being tagged but I need to search for what I love. With the ongoing conflict I decided to put down my papers on 14th March. When you wipe your slate clean you can always come up with different shades to fill in, and the control is in your hands even if  its temporary. So I thought of why not create some more interesting chapters in my story. This was going to be a solo journey and I knew if I could figure out the initial destination the rest of the stoppages would be laid by itself. That’s the beauty of travelling alone, you are free to do anything, experience and meet so many people for the first time, for the things unknown have a mysterious charm to themselves.

As Megha already knew few places in Himachal I took some suggestions from her as to which destination should I start with. I browsed through few sites and suggestions were pouring in from there as well. I wanted to visit a place which was quiet and an off track tourist destination with not many people around. I finally decide to start with Barot valley and let the moment decide the others. Barot valley is a small, in fact quite a small countryside situated beside the river Uhl. This place is better known for its Shanan hydel project. Somewhere I read the valley also provides the option of angling, camping and trekking, but then, I just wanted to be alone for couple of days doing nothing but to read a novel by Murakami and write in my diary. Barot seemed like the perfect escape.

I took an overnight bus from ISBT Kashmiri Gate at 9:30 pm after missing the bus at 8 pm. The 46 seater semi-sleeper volvo is not upright a luxury bus but it is no doubt comfortable. After all when you pay 1200 bucks for a seat it better be a good one, I paid Rs 250 extra for the broker which I couldn’t help. It took some 9 hours to reach Mandi from where I was supposed to take another bus to Barot. When you are traveling somewhere for the very first time you are always unsure of everything and anything. You don’t know at what time you shall reach, you are not sure where to get down, you don’t know whether you have crossed it already. With some vague ideas and doubts I hold on, the bus driver finally tells me to get down as we reach Mandi at around 7:30 in the morning. I can feel the chill in the air as I got down the bus.

The bus station was just beside the point where I got down. Mandi bus station transports commuters to different destinations, you just need to know the right bus, and of course your destination. Now, next thing to do was to search for the bus to Barot. There I met a person named Deepak who helped me to identify a bus which would drop me till Ghatasni, from Ghatasni it was another 25 km uphill drive to Barot. He identified himself as an entrepreneur and was travelling across Himachal to identify tourist spots for his tourism related business. We boarded the same bus, and it was soon crowded by travellers of different kind, some men, some women, few children, some old, and some young. It was also accompanied by sheeps and goats which was giving away a stench, strangely, it didn’t bother me and felt I could absorb the moment with ease. Soon the bus was passing through valleys and adjacent hills. Deepak got down somewhere in the middle, we exchanged numbers and waved our goodbyes. The bus dropped me at Ghatasni and after waiting for half an hour the bus arrived which was to take me till Barot valley. The bus was crowded and again occupied by both human and domesticated animals. While I was trying to adjust in that packed bus someone asked, “You don’t seem to be from here”, I said, “I am not, I am from Assam”. He offered his sit to me, and was curious about me and my place. We chated for some time. He was concerned that the sheeps beside me don’t spoil my trousers. “The bus shall reach Barot in another of 2 hours”, he said. By the time I reached Barot it was around 2:15 in the afternoon. Mr Amichand Thakur, the owner and caretaker of ‘Riverview Guest House’ already called and instructed the bus conductor where to drop me. As soon as I got down, I recognized him as he greeted me with a smile. With the kind of temperature in the afternoon I was sure it would be freezing at night. Barot was on the other side of the river Uhl, we crossed the makeshift bridge to reach the guest house. For 500 bucks a day, the rooms were quite spacious and the washroom was almost as big as the living room, and with two pairs of blankets for a comfy warm bed. After taking a quick shower I rushed downstairs to have my food, I was starving. Mrs Thakur, wife of Mr Amichand served me rice with three different variesties of gravy to accompany- yellow dal, curry, and ma-ki-dal. I hogged quitely, and finished my meal within minutes. Mrs Thakur is a kind-hearted and an outspoken lady, I ask her about Barot, her family and children, and few places where I can go and relax. When I insist to pay the advance money, she tells me that there’s no need to pay now and I can pay on the day I leave.

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And I hogged after starving for the whole day!

It was 4 pm, I decided to take a stroll of the place, to get some fresh air and to listen to the stream flowing nearby. I pass by fields that are freshly prepared for the new crops to sow in . There were Deodar tress all around. I could imagine how the place would look once it snows here. I thought of walking by the narrow lanes between the fields and sit there for a while. I could here the silence, and only a momentary chirping of birds to disturb the serenity.

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Lush green field surrounded by Deodar trees in Barot valley.

While I started writing few words in my diary, someone from behind asked, “What are you doing here?” “Nothing actually, I thought of sitting and relaxing here for a while and try to write few lines in my diary”, I said. “Are you a tourist?” “Yes, I am from Assam”. “I know where Assam is, I know the situation in Manipur is always tensed, I am a fauji”, he said. A slightly agitated, “How come you are sitting in a private property which is some farmer’s field, show me your I-card”. “Why are you getting angry, Manipur is a different state, and Assam is in Assam, anyway what’s the problem, I reached this place some time back, and I am a harmless little tourist just trying to relax”, I said. “No, show me your I-card”, he demanded. “Ok, I will show my I-card provided you show yours, I need to know who you are and are you really from Indian army”. He showed his ‘Aadhar card’ and became angry, “how dare you ask for my I-card”, I continued politely, and said, “Sir, if you have some objection me sitting here, I will move but you don’t have to be angry or rude”. I left the place, I could still hear him murmuring something in the back. What a day to start with. Thakur couple were very sad and angry to learn this incident. They were flabbergasted as to how can someone without any threat react to a tourist or to anyone like this, a bit outlandish for them too to understand. I thought of letting it go and also urged them not to say anything. Of course I was upset. A bittersweet experience to start with. But then its alright. Solitude at times can present itself in an unexpected way as Murakami says. I retire in my closet and find myself soon that I am lost in the book I was reading.

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On the way to Miyut.

Next day I got up early and after a scrumptious meal I was ready for a trek to Miyut. Solitude was more important than the trek for me, I walked along the stream passing by the hills, and far-fetched mountains covered with snow which appeared to be close. I more I walked through the zig-zag shaped path there appeared more layers of hills and alluring mountains. I carried few packet of snickers and a rain-jacket with me in case it rains, you can never be sure with the weather in the hills and valleys. I felt as if it was only me in the valley as I couldn’t see anyone else on the way, as if the valley was dead or the people have left for somewhere else. Momentarily I would stop and rest for a while, gulp water from the trunk of a tree, which was placed in such a way that the water could flow through the trunk and converted into an ever flowing natural tap. I would talk to myself in the middle and ask,  “What I was doing here, what exactly is my purpose”, I still don’t have the answer yet. I finally reached Miyut and saw that the road meets a dead-end and you have walk through the rocky path between the hills. I discover a small makeshift temple and decide to return from this point. It took me three hours to reach here, and took me two and half hours to return, I discovered beautiful narrow lane made of concrete which helped me to reduce the distance by half an hour.

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Trek to Miyut.

The trek was tiring and satisfying to the soul, I saw Mrs Thakur when I reached the guest house. I headed straight to the kitchen and have my late lunch. The next day I decided to stay indoors for most of the time and write my journals. I take a walk to the nearby stopping point of the Haulage trolley, it was made way back in 1926 and it doesn’t function anymore. One can trek beside the tracks but I decide not to. I spent the evening over a nice meal of Rajma-chawal, it’s not my favorite but I gladly had it as Mrs Thakur insisted, besides the beans were from her fields.

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Haulage trolley.

Next day I had to wake up early to catch my bus at 6:40 in the morning to Mandi as I would be joining Megha and her friends to spend a day at Prashar lake. With a promise to myself to be back in Barot when it snows here I packed my bag and left Barot. As the bus approached I knew I would not see this place for some time until I am back. To be contd…

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Mr and Mrs Thakur- Care taker and owner of Riverview Guest House.